GALWAY, Ireland—For couples unable to conceive a child, Dr. Phil Boyle is a godsend.
He uses a method, developed with other Catholic physicians, to overcome infertility that is consistent with Church teaching and is a bona fide scientific breakthrough.
“We had completely given up hope, but when I heard about Boyle's treatment I thought it might be the answer,” said Gabrielle Tims of Sligo, in the West of Ireland. “Now we are over the moon.”
She and her husband, Denys, had been trying to conceive for eight years before they met Boyle, an Irish doctor using pro-life fertility treatment methods developed in the United States. Since Boyle opened his clinic in the West of Ireland just over a year ago, he has helped 43 couples to conceive. The sixth and seventh babies born under the program came in November, in the form of twins to a couple who asked for anonymity.
Boyle said he is the only medical doctor in Ireland offering natural family planning “NaPro” technology.
The technology was developed by Dr. Thomas Hilgers at the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction in Omaha, Nebraska. Hilgers improved on the 1960s breakthroughs made by Australian Drs. John and Evelyn Billings in their ovulation method of family planning.
By taking measurements of cervical mucus and hormone levels in the bloodstream, doctors using NaPro technology can very accurately estimate those few days in a month when a woman is fertile. Blood testing is now so sophisticated that it can also measure subtle abnormalities in hormone levels, which can then be compensated for by using hormonal injections.
In the United States, Hilgers is claiming a 50% success rate in helping previously infertile couples to conceive and go to full term. Boyle doesn't have access to some of the surgical techniques available at the Paul VI Institute, so he reckons his success rate is less.
“I have only been offering the treatment for just over a year, so it is too early to give a statistical success rate,” he said. “Seven children have been born so far. But, in all, 43 couples have successfully conceived thanks to this method. The success rate at present is above 20, and perhaps 30%.”
Dr. Declan Egan, director of University Hospital Galway's fertility unit, acknowledged that the NaPro method is particularly effective for treating infertility caused by ovulation problems. He speculated that if Boyle only treated couples with ovulation problems, his success rate could be as high as 80%.
“His success rate is diluted because he sees all kinds of patients,” Egan said, “but he won't get good results with hormonal treatment for people with ‘immuno’ or mechanical difficulties.”
Ireland's oldest maternity hospital, the Rotunda, operates an in vitro fertilization (IVF) program for infertile couples which has a success rate of about 25%. IVF is contrary to Catholic teaching, however, whereas the NaPro method was developed in line with Catholic teaching. In addition, NaPro does not require invasive surgery and costs less than most other infertility treatments.
The Timses call their 9-week-old daughter, Dionne, their “miracle baby.” Denys, originally from San Francisco, and Gabrielle, originally from Switzerland, said they had tried to conceive for over eight years.
Boyle says the NaPro method of hormonal treatment should be tried by “practically any infertile couple whose problems are not caused by a blockage of the fallopian tubes or a low sperm count.”
“Those who it can most help are those couples who can't have babies, but who are told they are perfectly healthy,” he said. “The NaPro method can measure subtle differences in hormone levels in a way not available to other techniques.”
Boyle was studying to be a general practitioner in Ireland when he met a Canadian anesthetist, Teresa McKenna, who was teaching the NaPro method to people who wanted to use it for natural family planning. “She told me it could be used for treating infertility and I found it very interesting. It fitted in with my way of thinking and kind of sat with me. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to study it, so I went off to the United States and the Creighton Medical School in Nebraska.”
Boyle said he is “amazed” at how well the system works, once a hormonal problem is detected and treated. Those couples who do conceive do so within less than three months, he added.
One woman who had been trying to have a child for several years and had four miscarriages credited Boyle medical care with enabling her to have a baby.
“People would make comments that really hurt,” recalled the woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Teresa. “People didn't realize what it was like, and it was putting the marriage under pressure. I felt I was a real failure. If my husband had gone off with someone else because he had a child with her, I would have understood. That is how bad it was.
“I had had my fourth miscarriage when Boyle came into the hospital to talk to me. Leaving the hospital for the first time I felt there was hope, before that there was despair. My daughter, Rita, was born on Feb. 20 last year and she has changed my life.”
Boyle said he is the only general practitioner offering NaPro treatment to infertile couples in Ireland. He added, however, that there are 10 people teaching the method to couples who want to avoid conception.
This method of natural family planning has many benefits over other birth control systems, said the doctor. For example, there is no risk of the side effects associated with the contraceptive pill. But Boyle believes that natural family planning also builds strong marriages and healthy families, because it involves mutual respect and responsibility.
Pope John Paul II wrote about these benefits in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio. In the text, he speaks of the “natural rhythms of the cycle,” a reference to the sophisticated natural family planning techniques, which are based on biological signs, not calendar dates.
He wrote, “In the light of the experience of many couples and of the data provided by the different human sciences, theological reflection is able to perceive and is called to study further the difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle: It is a difference which is much wider and deeper than is usually thought, one which involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality.
“The choice of the natural rhythms involves accepting the cycle of the person, that is, the woman, and thereby accepting dialogue, reciprocal respect, shared responsibility and self-control. To accept the cycle and to enter into dialogue means to recognize both the spiritual and corporal character of conjugal communion and to live personal love with its requirement of fidelity. In this context the couple comes to experience how conjugal communion is enriched with those values of tenderness and affection which constitute the inner soul of human sexuality in its physical dimension also.
“In this way sexuality is respected and promoted in its truly and fully human dimension and is never ‘used’ as an ‘object’ that, by breaking the personal unity of soul and body, strikes at God's creation itself at the level of the deepest interaction of nature and person” (No. 32).
Cian Molloy writes from Dublin, Ireland.